Statutory Sick Pay and Protection for Workers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:49 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 12:49 pm, 18th March 2020

The hon. Lady makes a really excellent point, and I thank her for it. Many workers on low pay are unlikely to have savings to fall back on either. In a recent YouGov survey, 48% of workers said that they would not be able to cover their rent or mortgage and other living expenses if they had to take two weeks off work at the current statutory sick pay rates. The European Committee of Social Rights found in January 2018 that statutory sick pay and social protections for the unemployed, sick and self-employed people in the UK were “manifestly inadequate”.

A worker in the UK on the national minimum wage who has to self-isolate will receive less than a third of what they would in Germany and less than half of what they would in Sweden or the Netherlands. The level of statutory sick pay is also set lower than the national living wage, which the Government said in the Budget that they want to increase. Will the Government therefore raise statutory sick pay to at least the level of the real living wage so that people are not pushed into poverty by doing the right thing?

The Government’s approach has been to say that people on low income who are not eligible for statutory sick pay can claim universal credit or new-style ESA. That is not the answer. Universal credit acts as a vehicle for cuts and the level of support is simply too low.

The four-year benefits freeze will only come to an end in April, and, as a result, families living in poverty have been left £560 a year worse off on average, so will the Government raise the level of social security payments in order to build resilience in people facing the virus? The five-week wait for the payment of universal credit means that there will remain a risk that people will go on working when unwell. The Government say that people can request an advance, but advances are loans that have to be paid back, often on top of other debts built up during that period, so will the Government commit to ending the five-week wait, and will they change their loan into a non-repayable advance?

The truth is that people often have to rely on food banks to survive as well as on advances during the first five weeks, and often after that, as deductions are made from the universal credit when it finally does arrive. However, there are reports that panic buying by the public is leading to food banks running short. People using food banks cannot afford to stock up and so are disadvantaged still further.

The Government should be taking measures to protect people in poverty in the current situation. Will the Government immediately suspend deductions from social security for anyone who becomes ill or is forced to self-isolate, and consider suspending them for all other claimants? Will the Government suspend work search requirements for anyone directly affected by the virus, and will the Government suspend all sanctions?

In the Budget, the Chancellor also suggested that some people who become ill but do not qualify for statutory sick pay could claim new-style ESA. That is £73.10 a week, even lower than statutory sick pay. Someone who is ill as a result of the coronavirus or for any other reason should not also be pushed into poverty and left worrying about how they will cope financially, so will the Government raise the level of new-style ESA payments? Even to get that, someone has to have built a contribution record over the past two years, which people in insecure work in particular may find difficult to do.

The Government announced that they were temporarily suspending face-to-face assessments for sickness and disability benefits. That is welcome as far as it goes, and Opposition Members have been highlighting the major problems with how assessments are carried out for a long time, but the Government have said that this approach would be replaced by telephone or paper-based assessments. That could risk increasing pressure on GPs at a time when they are already overrun, so can the Government tell us clearly how assessments will be carried out during the outbreak?

Media reporting of the virus highlighted that the most at risk had underlying health conditions, so what is the Government’s response to Mind’s call for all reassessments to be suspended to give people security of income at this time? What action will the Secretary of State take to protect people who care for a loved one who was already ill or disabled before the crisis began? Neither person may be directly affected by the virus, but attending a jobcentre could leave the carer at greater risk of contracting the virus.

The truth is that social security changes aimed solely at people who are self-isolating or ill will not be enough. Other people will be affected by the crisis. The Government have said that they will suspend the minimum income floor in universal credit for self-employed people directly affected. Will they also suspend the minimum income floor for all workers, given that many will be affected as a result of the crisis and the impact on the economy?

The demands on the DWP will be considerable, and its own staff may be forced to self-isolate or take time off because of illness as a result of the outbreak. What will the Government do to ensure that the service can continue? We are calling on them to do all that they can to introduce a form of robust, generous and comprehensive income protection for those whose hours may be cut or who may be asked to take unpaid leave because of the impact of the crisis. In some cases that will be because of a fall in the number of customers, but if schools have to close at some point, there will also be parents who are not ill and do not have to self-isolate, but who are unable to go on working, at least full-time. The Danish Government have just announced a scheme that would involve their paying 75% of people’s wages in those circumstances, and businesses paying the remaining 25%. A similar scheme successfully limited redundancies in Germany during the financial crisis.